06 January 2016

Pius (1)


Pius woke, face down upon his bed, to the feeling of his vertebrae straining against each other.  He had turned onto his stomach in the night, so that the frame of his old body was twisted out of compass. Now, held in place by the sag of the mattress springs, he was stiff with a stiffness that, though painful, discouraged him from rising in his bed.  In his head he groaned.  But as the gears creaked into motion and the discomfort of his body began to register, another kind of stiffness set in — spiritual, not physical — and he realized he was tired.

Tired in soul as well as body.  He was stiff from the slack pace of retirement and the futility of old age.  No engagements, no responsibilities, no one who would really miss his contributions to waking life.  For a man of his age it was permissible to stay in bed.  Nature afforded little enough sleep to the elderly; he should take what he could get.  The pain in his back told him that a long morning in bed would be restorative, was a necessary concession to his bodily needs, was really, after all, the right thing to do.  What counter-argument was there to offer?

Pius offered no counter-argument.  He did not hash out the prudential or moral considerations which made getting up the better thing to do.  He did not trade pros and cons with his aching back.  He simply acted.  Against the dispositions of the flesh and the protestations of the spirit, he shifted his body onto its side, lowered a foot to the floor, and sat up.

While it was strictly true that Pius had no necessary engagements that day, it was only strictly true.  Necessity belongs to the fulfillment of essential material needs and the performance of various civic, familial, and religious duties.  Of these, Pius had none to worry about that day, or none that demanded prompt attention.  But he did have engagements of a non-necessary variety — commitments to complete certain tasks of his own, the daily upkeep of his house, and one or two dispensable social arrangements.  Pius did not need to argue against the Siren's song of his bed,  because through the long years he had managed to train himself not to make certain choices, and certainly not to make them on the spur of the moment.  If one does not bother to choose, one does not need to deliberate, and without deliberation no temptation stands a chance.

The bedroom was small and rectangular.  The bed was set along an exterior wall, lined with windows.  On the opposite side of the room were three doors, all painted a stiff, leaden white.  The walls were that shade of blue-gray that can absorb years of dirt and dust without seeming filthy.  Out of bed, he walked to the middle door, took one of several large terrycloth robes off a hook inside it, and went into the bathroom to shower.  Emerging some time later, swaddled in the robe, he headed to his doorstep to collect the daily papers.

He subscribed to these papers, not so much because he believed in the news, in its objectivity or importance, (he did not), but because the news represented to him a faint echo of the life of the world. Pius liked to keep a finger on the pulse of things, and even if the quiet rhythm was frequently drowned out by superficiality and hysteria, he reasoned that the papers were still the best way to keep abreast of the times.

He filled a pan with water for tea.  While it was heating on the stove he dressed, then toasted some bread.  Today he drank a black tea, lapsang souchong, and savored its bitter aroma.  Sitting with mug and buttered toast, he spent the next hour methodically skimming every column of the three papers.  Someone unfamiliar with this practice might assume the old man was searching for something; the way he flitted from article to article with, he could not have actually been reading the paper. Pius already knew to his own satisfaction the gist of the stories before him. The daily papers were an endlessly reshuffled catechesis on the affairs of men and the interests of editors, and he was a old student of both.  The death of a famous designer.  Military developments in a far-away country.  Morally tinged social analysis along the lines currently in style.

He took note of things while he read, though not normally the headline stories or major concerns of the papers.  He noticed patterns of places mentioned and places left unmentioned, running themes in film and literary criticism, hints of new trends of journalistic interest.  Today he noticed a story about recent "acts of hate", which mentioned a graffiti incident at a local synagogue.  He wondered what distinguished domestic terrorism and vandalism from "acts of hate", and supposed that hate was going to become a popular topic again soon.